Order of the Good Write

That Magic Feeling When the Words Flow. A Blog by Debi Rotmil


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Dads

dad&meinDisney

Me and my dad, at Disney World 1974.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of my father’s death.   In 2010, June 20th landed on Father’s Day.  Yes, he died on Fathers Day. Don’t mean to bum anyone out – but that’s how it ended for him and for me. A father and daughter in this world. I became fatherless on Fathers Day.

I’ve lately been obsessed with the Broadway musical ‘Fun Home’.  Like Alison Bechdel, author/artist of her auto-biographical graphic novel of the same name in which this musical is based, I was a child of the 70’s. I lived in a home where everyone was isolated in their own worlds. Although her story is quite different from my own, universal themes abound and have struck such a chord, I can’t stop listening to the gorgeous cast recording without tearing up and thinking of my dad on this strange weekend.

Alison’s father was a closeted homosexual who killed himself shortly after his daughter came out as a lesbian. There is so much more to describe, with fascinating and heart wrenching complications so devastating, it leaves burn marks, hitting ‘the feels’ no matter what your own family narrative is. So, I’ll leave it to you to Google and explore, to sample the music of this wonderful work. I just want to hear the songs in my head, remember the days of my dad when I knew him.

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Michael Cerveris and Sydney Lucas in the Broadway musical “Fun Home”.

My father was a faithful husband, but he adored the ladies, and charmed them all – except my mother – who held him at arm’s length. Like the Bechdel’s, my parents had a complicated relationship albeit caused by different circumstances. Arguments filled the house, filling me with dread. I drowned it out with music.

Unlike Alison – whose father rarely touched her with affection unless she forced him to engage in a game of airplane –  my dad gave me bear hugs and held me when I cried over boys I loved who wouldn’t love me back. He gave me piano lessons, a love of performance and music. He took me to wonderful restaurants and baseball games at Shea Stadium. Drove me from Manhattan every Friday to our family house in Rockland County — every week just so I could at the old homestead – a sanctuary away from the NYC bustle.

Dad lived a full life. He spent a childhood orphaned by war and running from Hitler. He came to the US to live with his German aunt and uncle, learned English, finished high school, aced his SAT’s and supported himself (with the help of scholarships and jobs) through NYU’s business school. He was an US Army veteran, a Brooklyn Dodgers fan turned Mets fan, a guitarist, and an upright bass player. My dad was a brilliant sculptor – re-creating scenes from Don Quixote in clay, and carving lifelike busts of presidents and rabbis. Yes…rabbis. And he did that while he was a corporate man at IBM. In retirement he wrote poems, plays and novels. He died at the age of 83 five years ago on this fateful weekend  from the after effects of a stroke.

As different as our circumstances, Bechdel’s story goes beyond sexual discovery. It’s about a father and daughter who loved each other despite expectations, despite the issues. Dad’s will play airplane and give piggy back rides. They will also scare you and love you at the same time. We hold questions we forget to ask, and they take the answers with them when they go.

I am consoled by the fact my dad and I never left anything unsaid. We said we loved each other everyday. My dad didn’t have secrets like Alison’s father did; however, I often wondered what he was thinking – how he sacrificed an artistic life for a corporate one so I’d never have the difficult childhood he did.

He was a formidable presence in my life, who soared above me yet always allowed me to rise above when it was time.


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Hi Dad. Where Are you?

meadowI’ve been thinking about my father’s spirit lately. He died almost five years ago – on Father’s Day 2010.  Within those five years I’ve wondered if he is around me. Is his spirit watching over me? Does he support me? Protect me? Send me doses of spiritual comfort when I’m down? Does he still send love?  I’ve even tried a medium or two to see if he wanted to talk to me – possibly solidifying if he’s really there, just beyond reach, on the other side of the veil.

Nothing. Mediums have the ability to hear the spirits of loved ones, but they never hear my father. Other people always come through.

My father and I had a very clear, spiritual connection. I was a daddy’s girl – a chip off the old block. His birthday was December 18th – mine is December 19th.  We were buddies in birthdays, kindred spirits. When I was small, he was my hero. I remember one time I was holding his hand. He let go for a moment to light a cigarette (it was the late 60’s). After a moment, I reached up for his hand again and grabbed what I thought was his. I looked up to find it was my step-grandfather’s – a stranger to me. I screamed. I wanted my dad.

There’s a memory I have of my father that always gets me right in the chest. It’s a memory I have of him when I was very small. I was at the doctor’s office for a routine exam and I was terrified. My father, knowing my stress, stood before me and held my hand, calming me down. Even as a healthy, small child I knew this moment would stay with me forever. I was so grateful for my dad.  The memory is almost an out of body experience. I remember it as if I am watching it on film.

As I grew up, he was always my best friend. He gave me the best advice. He gave me a good home, a great education and a solid sounding board when I was down. We had the same temper. The same stubbornness, and the same ability to dream.  We were independent. We also were laid back and easy going – the kind of people other people wanted to bounce off ideas and speak to confidentially. We are both non-judgmental when it counts – opinionated when is doesn’t.  (We’re Sagittarius. We put our foot in our mouths).

I dream about my dad. Sometimes he just appears silently, standing by – not saying a word. Other times he’ll be with me, and he’ll be his old self – not in a hospital bed unable to get up – but as his old vital self, driving his car, going places, looking as healthy as he did twenty years ago. It feels so real that I’m elated by his normalcy- the way it used to be. No more illness. No more frailty. See? Dad’s back! Isn’t it amazing he’s recovered and no longer ill? Just my strong dad taking the Buick down to our town’s little village to buy some milk. It feels so real.

Then I wake up, and the reality hits me.

Our connection is so deep that I feel my dad doesn’t want to filter it through a stranger. He always spoke face to face, evading nothing – never needing a mediator to communicate with me. We always had an open line to each other – even when we’d have a big fight and I would give him the silent treatment for weeks until I saw how much it hurt him – we had a connection.

Some people sense a psychic turn when a loved one dies. There was never a day so electric with psychic power than the day I picked up his (and my mother’s) ashes from the funeral home. I trained it from New York City to White Plains and took a taxi to the establishment. The driver was talking to his dispatcher on his cell phone, and the radio was turn down very low. He finished his call, and the low white noise from the station continued for about a minute before the driver suddenly decided to turn up the dial on the radio. At first, I hardly listened. A delayed reaction to a Rod Stewart song that was dentist office wallpaper to me – a re-written version of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”. (I prefer Dylan’s version.)  At one point, something took hold of me, like I was in a meditative state singling out words I’d never heard before:

“And when you finally fly away
I’ll be hoping that I served you well
For all the wisdom of a lifetime
No one can ever tell

But whatever road you choose
I’m right behind you, win or lose
Forever Young, Forever Young..”

It was one of the first times I can remember crying without realizing I was crying.  It felt like he was sending me this message. I knew I was on the brink of moving to Los Angeles. He knew it before he died that I wanted to make this change. “You will,” he said in his hospital gown under blankets, “You will.”

I asked the taxi driver to wait while I went inside this stately place to pick up the remains. When I returned to the taxi several minutes later with two canisters filled with my parents, the radio station was playing The Spinners:

“Whenever you call me, I’ll be there
Whenever you want me, I’ll be there
Whenever you need me, I’ll be there
I’ll be around…”

It was a sensitive day. Perhaps my mind wanted to believe it was my dad (and mom) sending me a reassuring sign. Or maybe it was a coincidence. But I felt it in my bones. This was meaningful.

I’ll keep listening. Maybe my dad will whisper something to me, or show me another sign.

But wait. While finishing up this blog post, something made me leave this page to check something on my Gmail account.   Right on top of all my email, sent within a few minutes before my eyes landed on it, I saw this:

yoursoul

Hi Dad.

Fathers And Cousins

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Fathers And Cousins

“I even remember the day . He made me feel so special and loved. I always knew he cared. And in a world where most of the adults were worried about their own shit, I always felt like my uncle was always there.”

This is a photo of my soon-to-be-father and my cousin Michele, taken in the spring of 1961. The quote above is from her. This picture happened before he met my mother, and obviously, before I was born. The photo was shot by my uncle Charles, his brother, on an afternoon outing in area known as the Cloisters, located along the cliffs of the Hudson, north of Manhattan.

The moments in between grief are consumed with every day, ordinary matters. Thoughts fly, and responsibilities keep you grounded to the day to day. But the moment your sorrow invites itself into your room and interrupts your denial, and shakes you by the shoulders to remind you of the space in your heart, all breathing stops. The heart sinks.

I discovered this photo for the first time in my life, several months after my father died. It was an ordinary evening, during one of those moments in between grief. The TV was on, dinner was finished, thoughts and plans for tomorrow occupied my mind. My uncle, who was also handling the anguish of losing his big brother, sent me this photo of my young father holding my cousin. All at once, the waves of sadness and resignation that came and went in the recent months, culminated into a tidal wave of heartbreak. It came crashing while I wasn’t looking. It slapped me down and held me there, as I gasped for breath between tears and heavy heart. It had been fine for a while after my father left this world. But each day since, the waves grew bigger and louder until the moment I saw this photo, of my young, single dad-to-be, full of love for a hurting niece, with a whole life of love, sadness, pride, happiness, anger, sadness, fury, resignation and beauty before him. The years drained away until he grew old and ill. His last days alone, likely thinking of the young man he once was, and the old man he had become.

My father was a child of the holocaust, escaping capture by the Nazis thanks to the Catholic church who took him and his brother into their orphange. They were hidden children. When he came to America, he became the all American man. He made his way through New York University by waiting tables and taking odd jobs. He served in the Army during the Korean conflict, but never saw a day of combat. He became a manager at IBM and remained there for thirty five years. He married my mother, and they had me. Only me.